Show menu

Politics / Other

Impeachment: What does a president have to do?

by Jessica Biggs | July 30 2014

On Tuesday, July 8, 2014, Sarah Palin wrote an op-ed where she called for President Obama’s impeachment. Palin stated that the “unsecured border crisis” is the last straw “that makes the battered wife say ‘no mas’”. She is not the only conservative who has called for Obama’s impeachment. This political threat is a fairly common one. Democrats repeatedly called for President George W. Bush to be impeached when “weapons of mass destruction” were not found in Iraq.

But what does a president actually have to do to be impeached? In Article II, Section 4 of the Constitution, the standards of impeachment are outlined simply:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.

The Constitution only outlines two specific crimes for which impeachment would be appropriate: treason and bribery. Other than those two, the door is left fairly wide open. The phrase “high Crimes and Misdemeanors” is a holdover from British laws of impeachment, where leaders could be impeached for criminal or noncriminal activity that proved the president was abandoning his duty. Essentially, impeachment is reserved for the most serious cases of neglect. In fact, Congress has only seriously discussed impeachment four times.

  1. President Andrew Johnson was actually impeached by Congress because many representatives were dissatisfied with how he was handling the country after Lincoln’s assassination. Radical conservatives in the House accused him of violating the Tenure of Office Act by dismissing the Secretary of War, Edwin Staunton. Johnson was tried by the Senate, but he was finally acquitted by one vote.
  2. After President Harrison’s death, John Tyler gained the presidency and insisted on full executive powers. He vetoed several laws establishing a national bank on the grounds of state’s rights. As a result, Whigs in the House introduced a resolution of impeachment, but the resolution failed.
  3. President Richard Nixon was first elected in 1968. He won his reelection campaign in 1972, but soon afterwards, allegations surfaced that officials from his reelection campaign had participated in a break-in at the Democratic National Offices in the Watergate Hotel. This episode became known as the Watergate scandal. Congress began debating his impeachment, but Nixon resigned before he could be formally impeached.
  4. After his reelection in 1996, Bill Clinton became the second president to be impeached by the House of Representatives as a result of an inappropriate relationship with a female intern. He was tried in the Senate and found not guilty. He apologized to the nation for his actions and was able to finish his second term.

Throughout our country’s history, the House of Representatives has only successfully filed for impeachment twice. In both of those instances, the Senate trial has found both of those presidents not guilty. This congressional power has not been used often and with good reason. In order for a president (or another executive officer) to be impeached, the measure would require majority support in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. When impeachment is used as a political threat, there usually isn’t enough consensus among politicians to go through with a successful impeachment trial.

Regarding Sarah Palin’s recent call for President Obama’s impeachment, most congressional conservatives are not on board. Senator John McCain—who is essentially responsible for Palin’s status as a politico after tapping her as his running mate in 2008—said that while he “respects” Palin’s views, her comments could actually hurt Republicans’ chances for winning Senate seats this fall. John Boehner also spoke out against impeachment, even after he filed a lawsuit against Obama. Besides lacking support among Republicans in Congress, Palin’s aggressive tactic would most likely fail because Democrats currently hold the majority in the Senate. Even if Republicans in the House managed to issue a resolution of impeachment, the Senate would certainly acquit President Obama.

In a nutshell, impeachment will never be successful if the arguments against a president fall along strict party lines. If the reasons for impeachment are political, and not the result of criminal neglect as established in the Constitution, it will never happen. Instead of talking impeachment, let’s start researching Senate candidates for the upcoming election—and make a serious political impact.

Skip to toolbar